The Story of Layla and Majnun – Romeo and Juliet of the East

This story which originated in 7th century Arabia has traveled across the world over the ages

A young Majnun embraces a blue-eyed doe. Illustration by Mohammed ibn Mula, 1603

In 1192, a Persian poet by the name of Nizami composed a poem based on the tragic story of another young poet named Qays ibn al-Mullawah, whose love for one Layla drove him completely mad. Centuries earlier, Qays had fallen in love with his classmate, Layla, and she with him, yet her parents objected to the relationship between the two. Even with the help of his friends and acquaintances, Qays was not able to unite with his great love. But he would not give up. Wherever he went and whomever he met, he was reminded of Layla. Whenever he got a chance, he would sing of his love for her. This soon won him the nickname Majnun (Arabic for ‘crazy’.)

The brokenhearted Majnun fled to the desert, where he continued writing poems for his loved one, tracing the words in the sand before they were carried off by the desert wind. Anguished and helpless, the thought of Layla kept Majnun awake at night. While he slowly grew out of touch with human beings, Layla remained loyal to Majnun. Her parents forced her to marry another man, though she refused to consummate the marriage, rejecting his attempts to woo her. With the help of a Persian nobleman (portrayed as the saint al-Khider, referred to in many stories in Islamic tradition), Layla was able to arrange to meet with Majnun. The two did not physically touch each other in that last encounter. Instead, they read love poems to one another from a distance; Majnun, enthralled by the perfect image he had constructed in his mind of his unattainable love, fled back to the desert. When Layla’s husband died, she was finally able to grieve publicly. Those around her believed she was grieving the death of her husband, while in fact she was crying over the ongoing separation from her great love, Majnun. Shortly after, she died of heartbreak and was buried, per her request, in her wedding gown. Majnun rushed to her graveside and died as soon as he saw it. And so, the two were buried side by side, their graves becoming a pilgrimage site – a symbol of their reunion, achieved only in death. Nizami’s poem ends with the dream of a common friend of the couple, in which the two are united in their love, living happily ever after in heaven, as a king and queen.


Lord Byron called the Persian lovers “the Romeo and Juliet of the East.” Much like the eternal lovers of Verona, the story of Majnun’s love for Layla appeared in oral legends as well as a number of manuscript fragments even before it was immortalized by a great writer – in their case, the Persian poet, Nizami.

Believed to date back to the 7th century, the story’s origins are not Persian, but Arabic. “The Book of Songs” (Kitab al-Aghani), written by Abu al-Faraj, a 9th century Arabic lexicographer and poet, tells the story of a poet who lived in the days of the Umayyad dynasty. Using his penname, ‘Majnun’, the anonymous poet was able to fearlessly express his unfulfilled love for his cousin, for whom he composed love poems that described the pain of being separated from her.

Short, anecdotal forms of the story of Layla and Majnun began to circulate in Arabic and Persian literature and poetry, every instance expressing a different aspect of the life and death of the two lovers. In one version, the pair meet in a field and not at school; some highlighted the companionship between Majnun and the wild animals he met while living alone in the desert; others focused on the correspondence between the married Layla and tormented figure of Majnun.

Hundreds of years before Nizami composed his famous version of the story, the legend of Layla and Majnun was already known throughout the Middle East. One reason the love story became so popular was its mystic features. Qays/Majnun was a perceived as something of a role model in Sufi mysticism. As the researcher Michal Hasson told us, “In Sufism, man seeks to unite with God, and the relationship between man and God is one of great love and yearning. Even the greatest mystics, who grow especially close to God over the course of their lives, can only fully unite with Him at death. Thus, the day of the passing of the Sufi saint Mu’in al-Din Chishti is celebrated every year and is called Urs, which means ‘wedding.’ Majnun, who spent his entire life searching and longing for his love, but would only unite with her in death, is the ultimate depiction of love and desire for God – and Layla, the reflection of the beloved divine one.”

In 1188, the Persian poet, Nizami, wrote his great poem, containing some 4,600 verses. Nizami replaced the original Arab-Bedouin setting with an urban Persian one, along with the secondary characters that accompanied the lovers – the Meccan governor who tried to help the two lovers reunite is presented as a Persian nobleman; the young lovers who originally met in the Arabian deserts – two commoners surrounded by camels and merchants – meet at the beginning of the Persian poem at school, as children of aristocracy.

Since Nizami published his poem in the 12th century, the story of Layla and Majnun has traveled far beyond the borders of the East. Many different versions were created and it became the most “reproduced” story in Persian history. Before it was translated into European languages in the 18th and 19th centuries, a range of Arab and Persian poets who hoped to achieve something approaching Nizami’s stature composed Layla-and-Majnun poems of their own. Later, the pattern was repeated in Turkish, Urdu, and many other languages. According to Michal Hasson, “Layla and Majnun can therefore be found in 17th century wall paintings in Rajasthan, in Mughal miniatures, in Arabic poetry and, of course, in Persian poetry, as well as in numerous other works in different languages. There is also a “tomb structure” dedicated to the lovers in a small town on the border of India and Pakistan.” Even the 1970 song Layla, written by British musician Eric Clapton, was inspired by the tale. Clapton became familiar with the story, and was able to relate to its theme of unattainable love, which reflected his own feelings toward Pattie Boyd, the wife of his friend George Harrison.


The National Library of Israel is in possession of five different versions of Nizami’s work. One of them is a beautifully illuminated manuscript copied by Mohammed Ibn-Mula, around the year 1603. It contains many marvelous pictures, like the one below showing a young Majnun embracing a blue-eyed doe, a symbol of his one and only, long-lost love, Layla.


Another beautiful example is this Kashmiri manuscript from 1798, which contains an illustration of Layla and Majnun meeting one another.

In 2018, Yuval Shiloach first translated the story of Layla and Majnun into Hebrew, not from the original Persian version, but from Rudolf Gelpke’s English translation, published in 1966.

Read more about Layla and Majnun at Encyclopædia Iranica.

Thanks to Dr. Michal Hasson and Dr. Samuel Thrope for their help in writing this article.

A Sufi Journey to Jerusalem

A seventeenth century travelogue by a famous Sufi mystic describes a strange and surprising image of Ottoman Palestine

Two ecstatic Muslim holy men in Jerusalem, photographed by the Christian missionary Robert E. M. Bain in 1894. From the Lenkin Family Collection of Photography at the University of Pennsylvania Libraries; available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

Late one night in the spring of 1690, the Sufi saint and scholar Abd al-Ghani al-Nabulsi (1641-1731) had a dream. In his mind’s eye, al-Nabulsi saw himself leaving his house and making his way to one of the markets in Damascus, his home city. As he later recounted, (in Elizabeth Sirriyeh’s translation), he found there

one of the finest Arab horses offered to us to ride and we rode it and went on our way. Suddenly we encountered two strong and energetic young men; they were well-dressed, magnificently clothed in green and red. Each of them put the palm of his hand under my foot while I was riding and their palms took the place of stirrups, each on one side, and I rode the horse like that with the two young men.

The author of a notable–and still popular–book on dream interpretation, al-Nabulsi was an expert on deciphering the symbolic content of our nighttime visions. But not even he could see the dream was in fact a premonition. A few days later, al-Nabulsi set out on his famous journey to Jerusalem, which served as the basis for one of the most important accounts of seventeenth century Palestine. At the head of the caravan, as prefigured in the dream, marched two young majadhib, Sufi ecstatic holy men, who seemed “like angels.”

Illustration of Qays, known as Majnun, “the mad one,” as an ascetic surrounded by wild animals from a 1798 copy of Nezami Ganjavi’s Khamsa, from the National Library of Israel collections. Majnun, driven mad by his unrequited love for Leila, served as a model for Sufi ecstatic piety.

Al-Nabulsi was one of the leading Muslim intellectuals of his age, a wide-ranging figure whose over 250 works include treatises on Islamic law, the benefits of smoking, agriculture, poetry, commentaries on the classics of Sufi mystical literature, and more. Dozens of manuscripts of works by al-Nabulsi are included in the collection of the National Library of Israel. While a copy of al-Nabulsi’s Jerusalem travelogue is not among them, the collection does include an early 1902 printed edition of the work, acquired by the scholar and collector Abraham Shalom Yahuda.

The scion of a wealthy family of judges and religious authorities that traced its own origins back to Jerusalem, al-Nabulsi garnered an early scholarly reputation and was teaching already at the age of twenty. As his engagement with Sufism (especially the work of Ibn Arabi, whom he considered his spiritual father) deepened, al-Nabulsi increasingly withdrew from public life. During one seven-year period, he is said to have remained confined in his house, letting his hair and nails grow long, and achieving a spiritual transcendence which he attributed to the overwhelming experience of God’s presence.

A late nineteenth century manuscript of Abd al-Ghani al-Nabulsi’s agricultural treatise, ‘Ilm al-malāḥa fī ‘ilm al-falāḥa, from the National Library of Israel collections

Al-Nabulsi’s six-week-long journey to Palestine, which included seventeen days in Jerusalem, was only one of four long excursions that followed this period of seclusion. Aside from that journey, al-Nabulsi traveled through today’s Syria and Lebanon, completed the annual hajj pilgrimage to Mecca (on which occasion he returned to Jerusalem for a second stay) and visited Egypt as well. Each of these trips became the subject of a travelogue.

In composing these travelogues, a genre known as rihla in Arabic, al-Nabulsi was following a well-worn tradition, the most famous example of which is Ibn Battuta’s (1304-1368) account of his thirty-year-long wanderings that took him from Morocco to China. However, al-Nabulsi’s travel writing is distinguished by his focus on Sufi themes and characters; it is no accident that the journey begins with an encounter with the two ecstatics. This is clear even from the title of al-Nabulsi’s Jerusalem travelogue: Al-hadra al-unsiyya fi al-rihla al-qudsiya (“The Intimate Presence on the Jerusalem Journey”). The “Intimate Presence” refers both to the name for the Sufi spiritual gathering, often held on Thursday nights, and to God’s own presence, which al-Nabulsi hoped to experience on the journey.

A 1902 edition of al-Nabulsi’s Al-hadra al-unsiyya fi al-rihla al-qudsiya, formerly owned by manuscript dealer Abraham Shalom Yahuda, from the National Library of Israel collections

Al-Nabulsi crossed into the country via the Golan Heights, passing the snow-capped Mount Hermon. He complained of the cold and the lawlessness of the country, reporting murders, the looting of a mosque, and even a plot to kidnap him near Jenin, which, he said, was foiled by divine intervention.

Arriving in Jerusalem, al-Nabulsi and his party were met by a delegation of dignitaries, including members of a local Sufi order, who, along with a growing crowd, accompanied the group as they entered the Damascus Gate and made their way to the Haram al-Sharif (Temple Mount). On entering the sacred precinct, al-Nabulsi recited an appropriate verse (here in Samer Akkach’s translation) on the Prophet Muhammad’s night journey from Mecca to Jerusalem, from where he ascended to heaven:

You journeyed by night from a sanctuary to a sanctuary

As the full moon journeys in the thick of darkness.

The travelogue, written in rhymed prose and interspersed with similar verses, includes descriptions about Jerusalem’s Muslim landmarks, including the Mamila cemetery and the Mount of Olives, as well as the city’s Christian sites. Al-Nabulsi and his party also made a side trip to Hebron to see the Tomb of the Patriarchs, venerated as the burial site of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Curiously, in his account of seeing the Dome of the Rock, which follows a long section recounting the powers and virtues of the site, al-Nabulsi erroneously states that the building was constructed by the Crusaders, rather than, as was also well known at the time, the Umayyad Caliph Abd al-Malik (644-705).

While the travelogue provides fascinating details about Jerusalem and his visit there, al-Nabulsi’s primary concern lies elsewhere: seeking out and describing spiritual experiences, particularly his encounters with holy men and sacred shrines and tombs. In terms of the latter, for instance, al-Nabulsi records stopping to pray at the tomb of Samuel, located just north of Jerusalem, before entering the city. As for living holy men, these included both the members of established Sufi orders, and, even more so, the majadhib, ecstatic mystics who lived on the margins of society and its norms. Al-Nabulsi describes some of these majadhib as wandering unclothed and others as wearing only rags, endowed with special powers to read others’ minds and see the future.

Al-Nabulsi met large numbers of such holy men in both the city and the countryside. He describes a party of majadhib from Jenin who meet him as he arrives in the city, having learned of his coming by divine inspiration, and another ecstatic near Nablus who would march armed through the market. Near the village of Yabad, just outside Jenin, al-Nabulsi encounters an ascetic named Sheikh Za’id. A former slave, he was overcome one day by a sudden divine illumination and moved to a cave where he sat, naked, grinding coffee beans and dispensing coffee, blessings, and advice to those who came to consult him. Za’id, al-Nabulsi relates, was both fantastically strong and could see the future, and predicted a happy ending for the author’s journey.

What’s fascinating about al-Nabulsi’s description of a country teeming with miracle-working saints, venerable tombs, and ecstatic holy men–and his other travelogues paint a similar picture–is the fact that it has almost entirely vanished. While such figures continued to be part of the rural and urban landscape for generations, by the first decades of the twentieth century there were few of them left. They had been obliterated by the combined forces of modernization, and colonialism, as well as competing Wahabi and Salafi ideologies, which denounced Sufism as un-Islamic. One of the pleasures of reading al-Nabulsi is the glimpse he provides us into this strange and lost world.

This article is part of the Maktoub digital Islamic manuscripts project at the National Library of Israel.  Supported by the Arcadia Fund, Maktoub will provide free, global access to more than 2,500 rare Arabic, Persian, and Turkish manuscripts and books preserved at the Library, and to the stories behind their creation.

Mawlid al-Nabi: The Birth of the Prophet of Islam

A look at the miraculous tales and sacred biographies of Muhammad, in honor of "Mawlid"

A 1746 Ottoman copy of Qadi Iyad’s Kitab al-Shifa, one of the most popular handbooks on the life of the Prophet Muhammad, with marginal glosses in Turkish, the National Library of Israel collections

The Quran tells us very little about the Prophet Muhammad’s life. Although the sacred text describes his revelation, his mission, and his relation to the long history of prophecy that preceded him, the events that make up Muhammad’s own biography appear at most as hints and allusions, passing references that follow no clear chronology; the Quran’s concerns, after all, lie elsewhere.

It was up to later generations of scholars to piece together the relevant Quranic passages and oral hadith traditions to reconstruct the Prophet’s biography. A critical question, among others, concerns Muhammad’s birth. When, where, and under what circumstances did that world-changing event in human history take place?

A late 18th century Ottoman copy of the Kitab al-Shifa, the National Library of Israel collections

Today, Muslims celebrate the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad, Mawlid al-Nabi, on the 12th of the Islamic month of Rabi al-Awwal, which corresponds this year to October 29th. The holiday originated hundreds of years after Muhammad’s own birth in the sixth century; some of the earliest Mawlid accounts describe the state-sponsored celebrations held by the Ismaili Fatamid dynasty, which ruled Egypt and surrounding territories from 969 to 1171. Nonetheless, Mawlid observances, whether with family at home or with large public festivities, are now common throughout the world.

One of the central elements of many Mawlids, historically and today, is the recitation of narratives describing the ancestry, birth, and early life of the Prophet. The earliest biographies of Muhammad, such as Ibn Hisham’s (d. 833) recension of a work, now lost, by Ibn Ishaq, already describe the birth as a miraculous event. For instance, Ibn Hisham includes a tradition that the Prophet’s mother Amina had a visionary experience during her pregnancy. However, the early biographers are much more interested in describing Muhammad’s military victories than his birth, and birth narratives play a minor role in their accounts overall.

True Mawlid texts have a far different orientation. Abu al-Hasan al-Bakri’s Kitab al-Anwar (the Book of Lights), one of the earliest and most influential of such works, is a representative example. Almost nothing is known of the author himself, though he must have lived sometime before the end of the ninth century CE. Al-Bakri’s entertaining and dramatic work recounts gripping scenes and extensive dialogue even when such descriptions have no basis in earlier sources. The work’s main subjects are the preexistence of Muhammad’s divine light before creation and its passage through the generations, as well as his birth and infancy. Kitab al-Anwar concludes with Muhammad’s marriage to his wife Khadija; his revelation, prophetic mission, victories, and leadership are not mentioned at all. Kitab al-Anwar, like later works written in its model, “reflects the devotional reframing of the Prophet’s life,” as Marion Holmes Katz has written, “in which priority is accorded to his major life-cycle crises, rather than to his public career as the Messenger of God.”

An 1802 copy of the Kitab al-Shifa, from Saloniki, the National Library of Israel collections

Al-Bakri’s account of the birth itself, for instance, is narrated from Amina’s own perspective. A white bird rubs against her heart, removing all the pains of labor, and she drinks a miraculously-appearing white liquid that causes light to shine from her. Women bearing perfume and angels appear. Then, after the birth, clouds descend twice to take the infant: once he returns having traveled across the entire world, and the second time he is presented to all earlier prophets and blessed with a quality of each. Finally, Ridwan, the guardian of paradise, arrives and stamps his shoulder with the seal of prophecy.

Kitab al-Anwar was quite popular; reports abound of the book circulating widely in medieval book markets. However, al-Bakri also attracted the ire of scholarly authorities. Among others, the important historian and Quran commentator Ibn Kathir (c. 1300-1373) denounced him saying “the lies produced in al-Bakri’s sira are an offence and a grave sin; their fabricator has fallen into the category of those warned by the prophet: ‘He who reports lies about me deliberately shall be condemned to Hell.’” Today as well, Mawlid narratives, and the celebration of the Prophet’s birthday overall, are condemned as unlawful innovation in certain corners of the Islamic world.

An 1815 Ottoman copy of the Kitab al-Shifa, the National Library of Israel collections

The Islam and Middle East collection of the National Library of Israel is home to over a dozen manuscript copies of and commentaries on another of the most popular works on the life and birth of the Prophet Muhammad. This is the Kitab al-Shifa bi Ta’rif Huquq al-Mustafa (“The Remedy by the Recognition of the Rights of the Chosen One”), written by the scholar and jurist Iyad ibn Musa al-Yahsubi, known as Qadi Iyad. The son of a prominent scholarly family, he was born in the North African city of Ceuta in 1083 and pursued his studies there and in Muslim Spain. Iyad served as a judge (qadi), and authored numerous works on Hadith, law, biography, and history.

The Kitab al-Shifa is arranged by topic, collecting sources from the Quran and Hadith on the Prophet Muhammad, along with the author’s commentary, on various themes. For example, different sections are dedicated to God’s kindness and gentleness toward Muhammad; the Prophet’s matchless character, intellect, and physique, as well as his ability to predict the future. Rather than a traditional biography, the Kitab al-Shifa is more of a handbook of traditions and remains a popular devotional text.

This is true of the chapter devoted to Muhammad’s birth as well, in which Qadi Iyad collects stories stretching back to al-Bakri and other sources. Iyad recounts how a light that outshined the stars in its brilliance issued from the Prophet when he was born; how because of his presence, his wet-nurse Halima always had abundant milk for him, and her animals were fertile and abundant as well; and how those who ate with him were never left unsatisfied. As befits a man who would change the course of history, all of nature and the works of man convulsed at his arrival. As the translation of Aisha Abdurrahman Bewley puts it:

These are the wonders that took place on the night he was born: the arcade of [the Persian emperor] Khusrow shook and its balconies fell down, the waters of Lake Tiberias ebbed, and the flame of Persia, which had not been put out for a thousand years, was extinguished.

This article is part of the Maktoub digital Islamic manuscripts project at the National Library of Israel.  Supported by the Arcadia Fund, Maktoub will provide free, global access to more than 2,500 rare Arabic, Persian, and Turkish manuscripts and books preserved at the Library, and to the stories behind their creation.

A Bahrain Mystery in the National Library Collection

A mysterious 80 year old document which recently surfaced in our collections emphasizes the geopolitical significance of Bahrain. But what is it doing here?

Bahrain in a First World War era map of the Persian Gulf, produced in Belgium, from the National Library of Israel collections

In October of 1940, the Italian air force launched a daring nighttime strike on the Persian Gulf state of Bahrain. Flying over 2500 miles from a base in the Mediterranean Sea, the Italian planes dropped eighty-four bombs on the country’s important oil refinery. While the government had considered the possibility that the refinery might be attacked, the fear was sabotage, not bombardment. Brilliantly illuminated at night to deter intruders on foot, it was the perfect aerial target.

While mostly forgotten today, the bombing–Bahrain’s most direct experience of World War II– thrust the island nation into the international spotlight. With rule over the territory passing between Iran, Portugal, and various Arab dynasties for centuries, Britain formalized its control in 1892. In subsequent decades, and especially after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire following World War I, the British position in Bahrain, and throughout the Gulf, seemed unshakable.

However, the Russian emigre intellectual, scholar, and political analyst Basile Nikitine saw the Italian attack as an important turning point. Sitting down at his desk in occupied Paris, Nikitine drafted an article, intended for publication in the French press, underlining Bahrain’s overlooked geopolitical significance. The islands, he wrote,

have been completely ignored by public opinion. Situated somewhere in the Persian Gulf, far from the arena of major politics, who would really be interested in them, apart from a few rarified specialists? However, quiet though it may be, this small dot on the map of the Middle East, is an important link in the chain of Great Britain’s imperial network. Access to India, aviation, oil, politics in Iran and in Arabia–all these elements are intertwined in Bahrain.been completely ignored by public opinion. Situated somewhere in the Persian Gulf, far from grand politics, who could be interested in them, really, aside from a few rarified specialists? However, obscure though it may be, this small point on the map of the Middle East serves as an important link in the imperial system of Great Britain. Access to India, aviation, oil, politics in Iran and in Arabia–all these elements are intertwined in Bahrain.

The first oil well in Bahrain, operated by American-owned BAPCO, the Bahrain Petroleum Company, circa 1931. Photographed by members of BAPCO and the Bahraini government.

In the wake of the historic peace accord between Israel and Bahrain, the Gulf nation, and its ties to regional politics, has gained a new prominence in the minds of Israelis. Now is the perfect time to reconsider Nikitine’s essay–and to try to solve the riddles it contains. Never published, the text, three dense, loose-leaf pages written in French and accompanied by a pen and ink map, is preserved in the National Library archives. Who was Basile Nikitine? And how did this bit of Bahrain’s history make its way to Jerusalem?

Born in 1885 in Poland, then part of the Russian Empire, Nikitine studied Arabic, Persian, and Turkish in Moscow, Paris, and Saint Petersburg, practicing his language skills during frequent trips to the region. After graduation, he joined the Russian Foreign Ministry and spent the majority of his diplomatic service in Iran, traveling widely throughout the country. With the outbreak of the Russian Revolution, Nikitine left Tehran for Paris, pursuing a career as a scholar and writer, where he would remain until his death in 1960.

A First World War era map of the Persian Gulf, produced in Belgium, from the National Library of Israel collections

Nikitine’s scholarship focused on Kurdish language, culture, and history, and he made numerous important contributions to the field. Due to his diplomatic experience, he was also intimately familiar with modern Iranian arts and letters; his memoir, The Iran that I Have Known, recounts his friendships with the country’s leading writers and thinkers.

However, along with his academic research, from 1920 on Nikitine also wrote for the popular press. His articles covered a host of topics, from Soviet spying on the Russian emigre community, Afghanistan in international politics, Japan’s economic potential, the potato in Russian folklore, and more. Employed at the Banque Nationale Francaise du Commerce Exterieur, his freelance journalism served to supplement his income, and this extra cash only became more essential after the Nazi occupation and the installment of the Vichy regime in 1940. Nikitine remained in Paris and in his job at the bank, and continued writing for now pro-German French newspapers.

The original draft of Nikitine’s article in French, preserved in the archives of the National Library of Israel

This background helps explain the character of Nikitine’s essay, written only a few months after the fall of France in June. The tone is overwhelmingly anti-British. Nikitine argued that British influence in Bahrain, and the Persian Gulf overall, was weakening and predicted the ultimate end of British supremacy in the region. The most serious challenge to the British position came in the wake of the failed Anglo-Persian Agreement of 1919, never ratified, which would have turned all of Iran into a British protectorate. Nikitine argued that this overreaching was instrumental in the 1921 coup d’etat that saw the downfall of the Qajar dynasty and brought the former army colonel Reza Shah Pahlavi to power in 1925. In the wake of the coup, Reza Shah pursued ties with other European powers; on the eve of World War II, Germany was the country’s biggest trading partner.

Against this backdrop, Nikitine saw Bahrain as a critical point of conflict. In 1927, Iran appealed to the League of Nations to assert its sovereignty over Bahrain, a claim that the British strongly rejected, saying that the island was under imperial protection. “It is well known that Great Britain always finds its ‘irrefutable’ arguments,” Nikitine wrote, dismissing the British arguments as cynical and guided by the narrow interests of securing its naval power, “above all if it sees salt water in abundance.”

A pen and ink map which accompanied Nikitine’s article, the National Library of Israel collections

This conflict over Bahrain, he continued, could spell the end of British dominance in the Gulf. “Politically, the position of Great Britain is no longer unassailable,” he wrote. Fascist Italy was seizing territory on the African coast of the Red Sea, leaving important British positions, like Bahrain, vulnerable. Nikitine predicts that “Arabia, which has been carefully maintained in the British orbit, could detach itself, especially if one considers the fact that Aden, the key to British strategy, is more and more exposed to Italian attacks.”

In the end, history did not align with Nikitine’s analysis: in August 1941, following the German invasion of the Soviet Union that June, the USSR and Great Britain jointly occupied Iran, overthrew Reza Shah, and installed his son on the throne. Britain, and later America, remained overwhelmingly influential in Iran and the Gulf for decades to come.

Nikitine stayed in Paris throughout the war and until the end of his life. There seems to be no indication that he came to Israel or was involved in the National Library in any way; this is the only document written by him in the Library’s archives. The essay likely arrived at the Library in 1962 or 1963, just a few years after the author’s death. However, the precise date is a matter of guesswork; the Library’s catalogue does not record exactly when the essay entered the collection, who donated it, or under what circumstances. The mystery of how Nikitine’s work came to Jerusalem remains unsolved.


Here is the complete translation of the article:

The British Empire: Threatened in the Bahrain Islands

Without fear of exaggeration, it is fair to say that the Islands of Bahrain, the target of a recent visit by Italian bombers, have been completely ignored by public opinion. Situated somewhere in the Persian Gulf, far from the arena of major politics, who would really be interested in them, apart from a few rarified specialists? However, quiet though it may be, this small dot on the map of the Middle East, is an important link in the chain of Great Britain’s imperial network. Access to India, aviation, oil, politics in Iran and in Arabia–all these elements are intertwined in Bahrain.

First and foremost, a few words to acquaint the reader with Bahrain’s geographic and ethnic setting. One of an archipelago of islands including Bahrain, Moharraq, Omm Na’san, Sitra, and Nabi Salih, it is situated on the southwest coast of the Gulf, in the rift separating Qatar from Asia; 552 square kilometers, a hot and humid climate, with no rain. There are a 100,000 inhabitants, three-quarters of whom live in cities: Manama (25,000), Bodayya (8,000), Moharraq (20,000), and Hadd (8,000). Arabic is the only spoken and written language (L’annuaire de Monde Musalman). [The inhabitants are] pearl fishers and farmers.

Within this framework (which due to its latitudes involuntarily evokes a novel by Josef Conrad) let us see how the political events that today are worthy of having a few lines dedicated to them, have come about.

Without going too far, one can distinguish two phases in the modern history of Bahrain: undisputed British supremacy from 1900 to 1927, and its weakening after this date. This chronological division corresponds to the general evolution of British interests in the Middle East. The predominance of Great Britain, before its decline, rested on its privileged position in Persia, which, even after the Anglo-Russian treaty of 1907, gave Albion influence over the entire southern zone of the country to the Gulf, since the Arabian coast, divided up into numerous small principalities, was also ruled according to a system of concessions and protectorate treaties, some more formal than others. From the beginning of the twentieth century, obtaining an oil concession in Iran depended on these links to Great Britain. This was so much the case that His Majesty’s Consul General in Bouchir was also the English Resident for the Gulf, with the status, de facto, if not de jure, of a Viceroy. As with all the consular agents in southern Iran, he was a high-ranking military officer, with links to the Crown of India rather than the Foreign Office.

As for Bahrain, the succeeding sheikh, in accordance with the treaty of 1880, put it under British protection with a political agent subject to the Resident of Bouchir, alongside himself. Since 1923, the Sheikh of Bahrain has been Hamd, the son of Isa-ben-Ali. (He visited London in 1936).

Yet, even during the time of its uncontested supremacy, British susceptibility was upset by the grand project of the German Baghdad railway that planned its terminus in Kuwait on the Gulf, an area that Great Britain had always considered its “hunting grounds.” This time it was only a warning, and Great Britain retained it position – reaffirmed after the Great War by bringing Iraq under its mandate and by the creation of an Arab kingdom in Mecca (the fruits of Lawrence’s efforts).

It should be noted however that the high point of British success, was the beginning of a succession of failures. First there was the failure in Tehran, where the treaty making Persia a thinly disguised protectorate, that was agreed upon by Sir Percy Cox (who had become a minister after having been the Resident at Bouchir, where the German consul Wassmuss had given the English a hard time) and Vossug-ed-Dowleh, could never be ratified. It is fair to assume that this attempt contributed to the polarization of patriotic sentiments and created an atmosphere, where it was enough for one coup d’etat that took place in 1921 by a military officer, to ensure that Iran, guided by the man who became its future sovereign (in 1925), would resolutely follow the path to political independence. This caused a change in the balance of power and Great Britain was obligated to abandon its positions in Iran, one after the other: the privilege of issuance [a banking term] at the Imperial Bank of Persia, the extraterritoriality of the Indo-European telegraph line; capitulations; customs facilities; etc. At the same time, the state of affairs in the Arab states was worsening: In Iraq–the mandate caused nothing but troubles and it searched for another formula; in Arabia–Ibn Saud removed the English representatives from Mecca. The latter immediately hastened to conclude a treaty with him in Jeddah, in 1926.

It is here that the question of the Bahrain islands comes back to the fore. One of the stipulations of that treaty could be understood to mean that Great Britain had some rights in Bahrain. Tehran did not accept this and lodged its protest with the League of Nations. Alas, this act, which like so many others in Geneva, only has symbolic value, was never followed up in terms of the Persian claim. This was repeated, however, in 1930, when Standard Oil was granted an oil concession in Bahrain. Persia (Iran after 1935) argued by standing up for its rights from the 18th century, when it exercised sovereignty over Bahrain. Great Britain responded that since then, the dynasty of sheikhs that were vassals of Iran was evicted by another group coming from the Arabian Peninsula, and that in general, the policing necessary for the Gulf (traffic in arms and slaves) could not be guaranteed by anyone except for His Majesty’s navy, etc. The intention here is not to judge the judicial proceedings. It is well known that Great Britain always finds its “irrefutable” arguments when the topic is a place “acquired” by it on any point on the globe, above all if it sees salt water in abundance.” [sea]…On the contrary, it should be noted that Iran did not allow itself to be rebuffed by this negative reaction and was not long in exacting its revenge. In 1931 Tehran revoked the right of British aircraft to fly over Iranian territory. Imperial Airways was thus obliged to abandon its airport in Bouchir. At the same time, Tehran revoked the contract with the Anglo-Persian Oil Company, and brokered a revised contract with much more advantageous terms. Finally, Tehran ordered warships from Italian shipyards. These warships would henceforth form the nucleus of the Iranian navy in the Gulf, where policing would be effected by the sovereign power in its territorial waters.  Is it necessary to add that that the Persian character of the Gulf is singularly reinforced by the fact that the Transiranian which starts at the north end of the Caspian Sea flows to its southern endpoint in the Gulf at the bay of Khormoussa where a port — Bandar Shapur — was built? For its part, Great Britain was forced to establish a new itinerary for Imperial Airways with a stopover at Bahrain and Sharjah. In addition, in 1935 Great Britain removed its naval stations at Basidu and Henjam near the Iranian coast. In 1938, for the first time in British maritime history, the grand naval exercises took place in the Gulf. The theme was…the defense of Bahrain.

All that remains to be said is a word about oil. In 1938, Standard Oil of California, together with Texas Oil, formed a company called Cal-Tex for exploiting the oilfields and the refinery (25,000 barrels a day). The question has always been, why the oilfields prospected by an Englishman, Major Holmes, were not made an English concession? Maybe the presence of an American company in Bahrain, whose sovereignty was under discussion, did not displease Great Britain – it was procuring Yankee complicity, and at the same time, most of the managers were English and production (from 45,000 tons in 1934 to 1,100,000 tons in 1939) was under British control. 

There is one certain thing that emerges from this most complicated affair, and it is with this that we will conclude. Politically speaking, the position of Great Britain in the Persian Gulf is no longer unassailable. This started due to the firm attitude of Iran, as we have just seen. Tomorrow, [the political status of Great Britain] could be even less stable as a result of strategic events that could unfold in the Red Sea or because of the extraordinary Italian exploit (a flight of 4500 km) that could foreshadow options that were unimaginable up till now. Arabia, which was carefully kept within the orbit of Great Britain, could detach itself, especially if one also considers the position of Aden, the key to British strategy, which is becoming more and more exposed to Italian attacks.

But, with the Persian Gulf breaking away from the English sphere of influence, it is the supply of petrol from Iraq (already threatened in Haifa) and from Iran, which would be completely disrupted. There is no need to emphasize the gravity of this hypothesis.